NEW DELHI: Questions are being rightfully raised about the suspicious circumstances in which eight under trial prisoners are alleged to have escaped from the Bhopal Central Jail, and then gunned down in a supposed encounter less than 12 hours later, less than ten kilometres away from the jail.

Far too many discrepancies about the course of events, about the modus operandi of the jail break, and the ‘weapons’ they were carrying have emerged in the statements of the various state officials.

Photographic and video evidence points to the staged nature of the encounter killing – down to the new clothes and shoes the undertrials were wearing, the suitcases lying strewn around the dead bodies, the gleaming knife a brave police officer recovers from the lifeless body. From the police version it appears that the Eight spent their short-lived time after jail break togging up in jeans and sports shoes, procuring dry fruits, suitcases and country made revolvers while giving no thought to really escaping the area. They did not even bother to split up.

(The Citizen adds: Postmortem reports now confirm that the men were shot in the back, waist upwards, some being hit twice or more and thus quite in sharp contradiction to the police version claiming a shoot out)

The Madhya Pradesh police and administration has predictably brushed aside the criticism ignoring the multiple contradictions its own and government spokespersons have indulged in. The Chief Minister has announced that the NIA will probe the jailbreak but who is probing the ‘encounter’? Experience shows, in most cases of encounter, FIRs are filed against the deceased rather than the police party. The FIR in the killing of the Eight must be made public; their killings must not be allowed to fall into a legal blackhole.

No doubt, there will be those who will point to the purported SIMI affiliations of the deceased to justify their killings. Already, a central minister has lauded the encounter as a ‘morale booster’, as though nations need to be nourished by blood. In their book, a genuine encounter is one in which an alleged terrorist is killed, and one in which public perception can be managed successfully. Rule of Law however has a different test. It demands that the police demonstrate that the killing was a proportionate and justified response in face of murderous violence.

The cavalier way in which policemen can be seen pumping bullets into the supine bodies – that too on camera – can be understood in the context of the ease and success with which the SIMI bogey has been raised in Madhya Pradesh.

It is remarkable that there have been no incidents of terror attacks in Madhya Pradesh for the last many years. In fact, the only incident of actual violence was a shootout in Teen Pulia area of Khandwa district on 28 November 2009, in which three people, including an ATS constable, Sitaram Batham died.

The local police alleged that the motorcycle borne assailant was a member of the outlawed association, SIMI. Except for this solitary incident – and the veracity of the assailant's link to SIMI or even whether this shootout was indicative of any terror activity rather than being an instance of 'ordinary' criminality, was not established – there have been no other incidents reported.

For a state with such a history, the number of cases in which the accused were charged with furthering the activities of an unlawful association under UAPA is fairly high.

As our(Jamia Teachers Solidarity Association) report, Guilt by Association (2013) showed, cases are registered against former SIMI members, their friends and acquaintances – and sometimes people with no links to either SIMI when it was a lawful association, or any of its former members – in police stations in Indore, Seoni, Khandwa, Bhopal, Burhanpur, Ujjain, Neemuch, Guna etc, practically the entire state.

The FIRs are more or less identical – with similar allegations (shouting slogans in favour of the banned organization SIMI, vowing to take forward the cause, distributing pamhlets, possessing banned SIMI literature, membership slips, Urdu posters etc). Sometimes, the set of accused and the dates and time of the crime are also identical.

In some cases, the evidence of guilt is identical: for example, the same copy of a magazine has been produced in at least 4 different cases across the state. The same receipt of contribution to SIMI funds has been produced as evidence in two different cases.

In another case, clippings of Dainik Jagran newspaper, which carried stories about SIMI – especially story about Safdar Nagori's narco analysis – have been submitted as proof of 'furthering of activities of an unlawful association'.

The Pithampur case of Dhar (FIR no. 120/2008), one of the most prominent SIMI cases of Madhya Pradesh is revealing of the way in which SIMI cases are manufactured in the state. Arrests of 13 leading SIMI activists were allegedly made on 27 March 2008.

Immediately after the arrests, on 29 March 2008, the Senior Superintendent of Police, Dhar, shot off letters to various districts of Madhya Pradesh asking for registration of similar cases. These letters immediately set of a chain reaction, resulting in 18 cases within one month, and another four over next six months. This surely must have been a record of sorts!

Many accused, appearing regularly in FIRs across the state were later also arraigned in terror and blast cases outside the state. Cases against Aquil Khilji, one of those killed, were regularly registered from 2001 onwards, right from when SIMI was banned.

Most of the cases pertained to possession and distribution of ‘unlawful’ literature. In June 2011, the Khandwa police claimed that they had raided Khilji’s house at midnight and busted a SIMI meeting where Khilji and others were planning a terror strike. Among those ‘arrested’ were Khaleel and Amjad, also killed in the ‘encounter’.

It might be interesting to note that while the police preened through the media about this midnight raid carried on the intervening night of June 13-14, families of Khaleel and Amjad had moved applications in the CJM’s court complaining that the police had picked up and detained their sons between June 10-12, failing to produce them before the magistrate even after the lapse of 24 hours.

In response to these applications, the City Kotwali police submitted to the CJM that though Khaleel had been called to the police station on 10 June, he had not been detained thereafter. The police also claimed that Amjad had not been traceable and could not be questioned. These responses are dated June 13. So, these foolhardy and senseless ‘SIMI’ activists had decided to convene a meeting the same night – in the middle of being questioned and searched by the police – to plan a terror strike.

Such are the SIMI stories of Madhya Pradesh police. In trying to prove the ‘encounter’ genuine, they have outdone even themselves.

The killing must be situated in this context of longstanding criminalization of SIMI, and these numerous cases booked against Muslim men (and at least in one case, also two young women) across the state.

(The writer is founder of the Jamia Teachers Solidarity Association)